The role of Executive Functions

What are they defined as and how do they help us in our everyday?

What are Executive Functions?

Executive Functions has been defined as:

  • Organizing, prioritizing and activating for tasks
  • Focusing, sustaining and shifting attention to task
  • Regulating alertness, sustaining effort and processing speed
  • Managing frustration and modulating emotions
  • Utilizing working memory and accessing recall
  • Monitoring and self-regulating action


Barkley, Russell A., Murphy, Kevin R., Fischer, Mariellen (2008). ADHD in Adults: What the Science Says (pp 171–175). New York, Guilford Press.

Brown, Thomas E. (2005). Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults (pp 20–58). New Haven, CT, Yale University Press Health and Wellness.

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The role of Executive Functions

ADHD affects a person’s ability to self-regulate.

The mental processes people rely on to self regulate are called executive functions. The executive functions enable a person to control their thoughts, words, actions and emotions. They also assist them to perceive and manage time, and to direct and manage their behaviour over time.

For example, the executive functions enable a person to concentrate and pay attention, to inhibit their instinctual or habitual responses, to recall and evaluate information, to consider the con-sequences that may result from implementing an idea, and to wilfully adjust and direct their behaviour. They also enable a person to self-reflect, to self-motivate, to delay gratification, to achieve their goals, to successfully navigate social situations, and to moderate their emotions in line with societal expectations.

Executive functioning abilities are thought to develop sequentially, one skill building atop the next, starting at around age 2 and reaching full development at around age 30. Children with ADHD lag significantly behind in the development of their executive functions – by approximately 30% or 3-6 years.

Additionally, as they mature the majority of these children tend to only develop approximately 75-80% of the executive functioning capacity of their neurotypical peers and thus will continue to lag behind indefinitely.